Mary nibbled a cupcake, hoping it would calm her stomach, but it didn’t work. That was the double-edged sword of pregnancy; if you didn’t eat, you felt nauseated, but if you ate, you threw up. It didn’t help that she was being sued, and by Machiavelli. Her thoughts churned while she watched Judy wolf down a cupcake and Bennie pace the conference room, in front of the skyline of Philadelphia, topped by Billy Penn on City Hall. From this angle, he famously looked like he had an erection, but Bennie didn’t notice.
“I cannot believe this!” Bennie shouted, throwing up her hands. Mary and Judy exchanged glances as they sat at the table. They knew from experience that when she started pacing, it was best to stay out of her way, like the Acela racing up and down the Northeast Corridor. And not the quiet car.
“This is outrageous!” Bennie pivoted when she reached the credenza, then paced in the other direction, waving the Complaint in the air. “A failure-to-hire case, brought by men, against us! Do you believe it? Do you even believe it?”“A failure-to-hire case, brought by men, against us! Do you believe it? Do you even believe it?”
Mary gathered the question was rhetorical, and Judy reached for another cupcake, this time a blue-frosted instead of a pink, wondering if the choice was intentional or politically correct.
“I worked my whole life, my whole entire life to have my own law firm!” Bennie shook her head as she strode to the wall, then snap-turned around like an Olympic swimmer at the end of the pool. “I was on my own, and you guys both know it, then I met you two! I wasn’t hiring only women! The gender didn’t matter to me, at all! Remember when you started with me, as associates?”
“Totally,” Mary answered, since Judy’s mouth was full. Her worries were already turning to the potential costs of the lawsuit. The firm had an insurance carrier, but it wouldn’t cover acts outside the scope of employment, which could arguably include intentional employment discrimination. The three of them could be on the hook for the damages, and her husband, Anthony, didn’t have a job.
“You remember, you were big-firm refugees! I hired you both because you were the best! Because you’re terrific! And we crushed it, the three of us, case after case. We made the firm a success, thriving through thick and thin! Remember when we almost went bankrupt?”
“Yes,” Mary answered again. They had almost been evicted from their offices. The caseload had gone up and down, and so had their cash flow. Bennie had kept them all together, doing everything she could to make payroll and not fire anyone. Back then, Mary hadn’t been sure she even wanted to be a lawyer, but then she’d found special-education law, which was her true niche. She did well and did good, for children.
“Now here we all are, over a decade later, and all of us partners, and this happens?” Bennie raised the Complaint like a flaming torch, but not like Lady Liberty, more like an angry mob. “You know whose fault this is? Mine, all mine. I’ve been too lax.”
“No, you haven’t,” Mary said, meaning it. She was already thinking along different lines. “Bennie, with respect, you’re on the wrong track.”
“How?” Bennie whirled around. “Are you going to tell me this isn’t a disaster?”
“No, it is. But I have some ideas about how it came about.” Mary gestured to the chair catty-corner to hers, opposite Judy. “Please, sit down. I have a hunch.”
Judy wiped crumbs off her chin. “Good, Mare. I like your hunches.”
“Thanks.” Mary rallied as Bennie stalked over, threw the Complaint onto the polished conference table, and sat down. “So Nick Machiavelli filed this suit against us. He threatened that someday he’d get a rematch, you remember.”
“I remember.” Bennie folded her arms.
Judy reached for the coffee carafe. “I hate that guy, I hate everything about him. He’s a phony, a fraud. Can you imagine, trying to convince people that you’re a direct descendant of the real Machiavelli?”
“It is his real last name, and I know his family from the neighborhood.” Mary had gone to Goretti, a sister high school to Nick Machiavelli’s school, Newman, and his pretensions were the least ridiculous thing about him. “The problem is, the man is an excellent lawyer, mainly because he’s ruthless. Nothing stops him. The ends justify the means, so maybe it’s in his DNA.”
“He’s not going to get away with this. He won’t even know what hit him. I’m going to devote the full resources of this firm to this litigation. We’re going to pulverize him.” Bennie’s blue eyes flashed, in battle mode, and Mary had never seen her like this. She knew that Bennie loved a good fight, but she didn’t know that Bennie loved a good war.
“My point is, think about what’s going on here. We know the shenanigans he pulled on that last case, right? He waged a proxy war. He sent lawyers to oppose me. So now we know how he works. He’s indirect.”
“Right,” Bennie answered, nodding.
“And?” Judy shifted forward in the chair. “Where are you going with this? What’s your hunch?”
“Think about this. Two of these plaintiffs are lawyers none of us met. We don’t even know where their resumes are. We have to go hunt them up.” Mary slid the Complaint over, checking the caption. “But the third, Stephen McManus, is the one from that interview with John—”
Bennie interrupted, “I still cannot believe Foxman said what he said. I don’t want to fire him, I want to kill him. How imprudent can you possibly be? And—”
“Wait.” Mary raised a hand, probably the only time she had ever silenced Bennie Rosato. “John told us that the interviewee was chatty. And somehow, the conversation must’ve come around to how it is to work with women. And that’s when John throws in his two cents, that he feels out of place, which ends up in the Complaint. Now what does that tell you?”
“That John should be fired!”
“No, think about it.” Mary got so excited she felt the baby kick, but this wasn’t the time to say so. “We know Machiavelli has wanted a rematch. There hasn’t been another case on which we’re opposing counsel, so he made one. I bet that, one way or another, these plaintiffs were connected to Machiavelli before he became their lawyer.”
Judy’s mouth dropped open.
“Right?” Mary felt the baby kick again. “John advertised for an associate, and I bet that Machiavelli saw the ad, sent McManus to us for a job interview, and coached him to get John talking about what it was like to work with us. And he had the others send in resumes, too. In other words, he manufactured the lawsuit against us.”“In other words, he manufactured the lawsuit against us.”
Bennie’s blue eyes rounded. “Yes, that’s completely possible. They don’t have much of a case without Foxman’s statement. It’s essentially an admission.”
Judy gasped. “That must be what happened. John was set up. He was entrapped.”
Bennie looked over. “He still shouldn’t have said it, Carrier.”
“I know, and I feel terrible that he thinks that.”
“I don’t care what he thinks, I care what he says.” Bennie snorted. “And it was wrong and disloyal for him to say such a thing to anybody outside of this firm, especially an interviewee. I would’ve fired him if I thought it wouldn’t hurt our defense—or if he wouldn’t file a retaliation claim against us.”
Judy frowned. “He would never do that.”
“Never say never,” Bennie shot back, but Mary wanted to return to the subject. John was a great guy, and she knew he had a great heart, even serving as the devoted guardian of his brother, William, who had cerebral palsy. Something told Mary that John had been taken advantage of by Machiavelli, and all she had to do was convince Bennie.
“So Bennie, my point is that nothing we or John did really caused this lawsuit. It’s not that we’re too lax, and we certainly don’t discriminate against men. We were set up, too—”
Bennie’s smartphone started ringing, and she slid it out of her pocket, checked the screen, and pressed a button to decline the call. “That’s a reporter I know from the Inquirer. It must be about this case. The timing can’t be coincidental.”
“Agree.” Judy’s phone started ringing, face up on the conference table. She glanced at the screen, declining the call. “And that’s somebody from the ABA Journal.”
Mary’s phone rang, too, but she let it go, assuming it was more of same. The baby kicked again, and she wondered if he or she would be a lawyer or a reporter one day. After he/she stopped causing so much gas.
Suddenly there was a knock on the door, which opened, and Marshall popped her head through. “Excuse me, but there’s media calling for you about the lawsuit. Do you want to take these calls? What do we say?”
“No comment,” Bennie, Mary, and Judy answered, in lawyerly unison.
“Got it, thanks.” Marshall flashed a shaky smile before she closed the door
Mary heaved a sigh. “Honestly, this is how Machiavelli operates. He’ll try to ruin our reputation. His goal isn’t just to win this lawsuit, it’s to crush us.”
Judy cringed. “You’re exaggerating, right?”
“Not this time,” Mary answered, without hesitation.
Bennie mulled it over. “DiNunzio, come on. The damages can’t be that much.”“It’s not the damages, it’s what just happened. The press. He’s trying to ruin our reputation as a firm.”
“It’s not the damages, it’s what just happened. The press. He’s trying to ruin our reputation as a firm. And it’s so gossipy, they’ll all run with the ball. How do you think potential clients will react? They’ll stay away in droves.”
Bennie bore down. “Then we lock and load. Machiavelli has been circling us for too long, and it’s time that we finished him off, for good.”
Judy nodded. “Agree. We can take him.”
Mary forced a smile, but she knew Machiavelli better than they did, so she was less than optimistic. In fact, less-than optimistic was her middle name.
Bennie checked her watch. “We need a lawyer, ASAP. We can’t represent ourselves since we’re going to be fact witnesses.”
“Who would you hire, Bennie? Should we go big firm or little?” Mary shifted, trying to get comfortable, but there was a human being on her bladder. “Machiavelli runs his own shop. He’s probably got twelve associates working for him. He’s going to throw everything he has behind this case, too.”
Judy sipped her coffee. “I say small firm. There are plenty of great boutique firms in the city. We want somebody who will dedicate themselves to us. Who identifies with us.”
Mary didn’t agree. “Hmm, I say big firm. We want a show of force. But do we hire a man or woman? I say a man, for obvious reasons.”
“I say a woman, because we want to win.” Judy smiled crookedly.
Bennie scoffed. “I’ll be damned if I pick a lawyer by gender. I never have and I’m not about to start now.”
“Then who?” Judy turned to Bennie, waiting for her answer, and Mary did the same. Even though they were both Bennie’s partners, they used to be her associates and old habits die hard.
“We need to think strategically in our choice of counsel. It kills me that we can’t represent ourselves, because we’re the best.”
“I second that emotion.” Judy smiled.
Mary added, “And obviously, we need somebody who’s brilliant, but who won’t be intimidated by Machiavelli.”
Bennie’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Not just somebody who’s not intimidated, but somebody who can deal with how manipulative Machiavelli is and the fact that he plays outside the rules. Machiavelli is intense, relentless, and unconventional, which can throw even the best of lawyers off their game. It’s like guerilla warfare against conventional warfare.”
“You’re right,” Mary said, changing her mind. “So that would leave out most big-firm lawyers because they tend to proceed in an orderly fashion.”
Judy shifted forward. “And come to think of it, it would eliminate smaller firms, too. We need a shop with the horsepower to deal with the crapstorm that’s coming, even the media.”
“I got it!” Bennie snapped her fingers. “I know exactly who we need. Roger Vitez. He’s the lawyer’s lawyer.”
“I’ve never heard of him.” Judy frowned.
“Me neither,” Mary said, worried. She wasn’t sure she wanted to place her legal career in the hands of some unknown quantity.She wasn’t sure she wanted to place her legal career in the hands of some unknown quantity.
“Because that’s the way he likes it. He’s a secret weapon.”
Bennie picked up her phone. “I hope I can reach him. He doesn’t have a cell phone.”
Mary didn’t like the sound of that, either. “What kind of lawyer doesn’t have a cell phone?”
“One who doesn’t need the work,” Judy interjected. “Bennie, does he specialize in employment discrimination?”
“No, legal malpractice. Lawyers hire Roger when their ass is in a sling.” Bennie thumbed through her phone contacts. “He’s a little odd, no suit-and-tie, no phone, no watch, but he never loses. He has a great reputation.”
Judy caught Mary’s eye. “Then how come I never heard of him?”
“Think about it.” Bennie lifted an eyebrow. “Didn’t you ever wonder why you never read about legal malpractice cases in the newspaper? Even in the legal journals? Because lawyers who get sued don’t talk about it, the bar takes care of its own and newspapers take care of advertisers.”
Judy frowned. “So legal malpractice is booming, which is good and bad news.”
Mary remained worried. “But does he know employment law?”
Bennie put the phone to her ear. “I’m sure he knows enough, and he’s the strategic choice for this case. The only question is, will he take us?”
Judy scoffed. “Who wouldn’t? We’re arguably the most high profile firm in the city.”
“Plus we’re nice,” Mary added.
“Speak for yourself,” Bennie said, without a smile.
From Feared, by Lisa Scottoline. Copyright © 2018 by Lisa Scottoline. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.
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